A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman

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Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

When it comes to filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, it’s all about the three S’s: slow, somber, and Scandinavian. Of course there’s worlds more to his work than that, but it’s true that the Swedish mid-century director was responsible for bringing a distinctive cinematic tradition from parts north to American attention with high-profile wins at Cannes and the Oscars. Hip art-house crowds in the ’60s gobbled up Bergman’s solemn existential meditations along with the equally opaque if more sexually daring I Am Curious (Yellow) as the vanguard of a bold new frontier in the film arts. We have Bergman to blame for Woody Allen’s most turgid mid-career works, but we have him to thank for much, much more.

This year marks the centennial of the master’s birth, and Manhattan independent theater Film Forum has readied a massive retrospective of his work to commemorate the occasion. (For those in the area, “Ingmar Bergman’s Centennial Retrospective” begins February 7. For those who aren’t, the series will travel to 14 more theaters across the country through the rest of the year.) The sprawling program collects 47 films from across Bergman’s four-decade career, and even that leaves a dozen or so features uncovered, not to mention his extensive stints in television and theater. Add to this the fact that his films deliberately resist easy understanding and interpretation, and Bergman’s oeuvre can start to look prohibitively intimidating to the curious uninitiated.

In that spirit, Vulture has assembled a beginner’s crash course to the essentials of Ingmar Bergman’s most widely known — and some might say finest — films. The following five picks barely scratch the surface of a rich and challenging filmography, and those who click with them are strongly encouraged to dig deeper, but this should be enough for you to hold your own if cornered at a cocktail party.

The Seventh Seal (1957)
By 1957, Bergman had already logged a decade of steady success adapting Swedish plays and literature for the screen, using his experience from his days of stage work to bridge the two mediums. The majority of these early films got small niche releases — a scant few still have yet to make it to home video in the U.S. — but this breakthrough put him on the map for international audiences. You may very well recognize it without realizing; the classic tableau of jaded knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, in the role that made him Max von Sydow) playing a game of chess with Death has been parodied by everyone from Bill and Ted to the Animaniacs.

But the memetic quality of this endlessly reproduced image sometimes threatens to obscure its actual significance. Adapting another play, this time his own, Bergman constructed a sophisticated parable about life and death with the confrontation between Antonius and oblivion as its moral centerpiece. His futile search for meaning in a world seemingly abandoned by God continues the philosophical angst of Camus, and places it in a medieval setting composed of evocative shadow. Though anyone who has ever cast their gaze to the sky and impotently wondered why the world is such absolute crap will be able to tap into Bergman’s ethos, however dense with symbolism and allusion.

Wild Strawberries (1957)
One of cinema’s great one-two punches followed through in a softer register, with Bergman assuming a pose bordering on sentimental while further developing his pet themes of mortality and existence. He composed the screenplay during a protracted stay in a hospital bed, and it’s difficult not to project the film’s gleaming ideals of salvation and redemption onto his experiences. He provides a ready avatar for professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an egotistical curmudgeon changed by his experiences over the course of one long road trip from Stockholm to Lund. A series of hitchhikers and the Proustian blasts of memory they trigger fundamentally reorient the professor’s soul, pushing him from misanthropy to the final shot’s transcendent expression of pure joy.

The title refers to another one of those writerly symbols Bergman so favors, in this instance a patch of brush where Isak remembers strolling with his lost boyhood love Sara (a beguiling Bibi Andersson). The underlying concept may be the most cosmically comforting Bergman has ever allowed: the notion that it’s never too late to make peace with your own past. Isak floats through a frequently surreal, free-associative pre-death, only to be deposited on the other side a spiritually cleansed man. Bergman earns the optimism of his concluding scene bit by bit, and bitterly.

Persona (1966)
And now for something completely different. From everything. Bergman’s detour into abstract psycho-horror doesn’t even completely fit that description. He’s also conducting a two-pronged character study with a tenuous relationship to sanity, mixing up a thick stew of iconography and cultural reference points from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to the Crucifixion, and not least of all, mounting an aesthetic offensive on the film form itself. Persona does not end, so much as it folds into itself and ceases to exist. A favorite of David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky, even at 84 minutes, it is a lot of movie.

Right, right, but what is it? Hard to say — a nurse (Bibi Andersson, once again) and the stage legend (Liv Ullmann) placed in her care adjourn to a remote seaside cottage, where they can hopefully wait out the inexplicable burst of mutism that’s come over the actress. From there, interpretations get highly subjective. The two women permeate one another’s subconscious and the limits of identity quickly break down in a flurry of Jungian signifiers, but that’s just one of an eclectic array of readings. Persona can be just about anything, whether that means a stealthy paean to homoeroticism or a coded parable for vampirism.

Cries and Whispers (1972)
A couple decades into an august career, Bergman was still testing his limits and continuously revitalizing his style. For this late-19th-century period piece, he ditched the usual chiaroscuro for eye-popping saturated color and decked it with touches of decadent crimson. The motif of deep reds — in fades between scenes, in the production design, in the blood — corresponds to the always churning, at times contradictory, ideas in Bergman’s work. Here, his reds embody savagery and serenity, life force and the violence that can extinguish it. In typically Bergmanesque fashion, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) begins the film wasting away from uterine cancer; the large red room in which she waits for death could be a womb or a gigantic failing organ.

In the decay of the body and mind, Bergman once again plumbs for some shred of hope and emotional connection. To care for Agnes in her final days, her argumentative sisters Karin and Maria (Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann) convene at the old family estate for a trip down an existentially booby-trapped memory lane, but the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan, the real star of the show) does most of the actual work. As the sisters reflect on hardened regrets and make a bid for reconciliation between them, Anna guides Agnes into the afterlife with supreme calm. The image of Anna holding Agnes as her disease internally rages, a recreation of the Pietà, remains a defining indelible image of Swedish film. (They even put it on stamps!)

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
The absurdly prolific Bergman began to slow his roll in the ’80s, though that’s not to say he scaled back his ambitions as a film craftsman or a ponderer of the universe’s cruelty. At a whopping 312 minutes — the film was conceived and created as a TV mini-series, then trimmed down to a tight three hours for a later theatrical release — Fanny and Alexander remains his longest work, though whether it’s his most exactingly poignant shall remain a topic of heated debate. Even so, one could make a pretty strong argument for this chronicle of a family in flux; Bergman piles on another helping of that sweet, sweet suffering, but now the subject of all the hardship happens to be a pair of young children instead of an adult on death’s doorstep.

Fanny and Alexander (precocious Bertil Guve and Pernilla Allwin) happily help their parents manage a local theater until their father unexpectedly expires, at which point a draconian bishop (Jan Malmsjö) steps in to marry their mother (Ewa Fröling) and turn their family into an authoritarian state. As they struggle to withstand his campaign of harsh discipline in the house and their mother plots an escape from her spousal jailer, Bergman returned to his lifelong pursuits. He landed another damning indictment of married life’s little tyrannies, indulged in a few more flights of surrealist fancy, and set up a Shakespearean power struggle in the household, and all the while, broke astonishing new ground.

Alexander’s uncle Gustav (Jarl Kulle) figures pretty prominently into the grand scheme of things, delivering a speech near the tail end that is both unmistakably Bergman and in radical defiance of the outlook he had established over 20-plus features. “Let us be happy while we are happy,” he says, after conceding that evil runs through the world like a mad dog. “Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.” Stumble onto one of his movies unawares in the middle of the night on Turner Classic, and Bergman could very well save your soul. But not until he’s done with you.

A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman